Premier League Mixer: Aston Villa keep trucking, Manchester City keep slipping, and Van Gaal’s United finally click into gear.
Villa Smash Sorry Sunderland
A club’s fortunes often change once the final third of the season gets going. Sometimes, dramatically. There’s always something that triggers this too. It could be a specific player experiencing a spike in form, or it could be a tactical shift. Most of the time, however, it’s in the wake of a managerial shake-up. For Aston Villa this year, it’s been the latter.
Villa extended their winning streak to three games on Saturday by battering Sunderland 4-0 at the Stadium of Light. The Villains are now three points adrift of the PL relegation zone, while Sunderland are a place and a point safe in 17th.
Tim Sherwood’s arrival seems to have galvanized Villa’s squad in unexplainable ways. They’re now scoring loads of goals when they previously couldn’t buy a shot on goal (their four goals against Sunderland equalled their total away tally for the season), and performing with an edge long absent in Birmingham. It’s turnarounds like this that are awfully difficult to quantify, because the changes are molecular. They deal with intangibles like confidence and commitment. Sherwood has found a way to inspire his previously uninspired players. The Villains have never been relegated from the PL, and f they can keep tallying up point against the teams around them, the drop will remain a foreign idea at Villa Park.
The fortunes of Sunderland have been conversely grim. The Black Cats have lost four of their last six games in all competitions. The result has been a dull squad being doled out by a humdrum manager in front of a terribly suspicious crowd. This sad string of form finally overflowed on Saturday. As Villa’s third and fourth goals went in, more and more Sunderland supporters poured out of the Stadium of Light. A cacophony of jeers scored the horror of a slumped over Gus Poyet, who’s surely now feeling the pressure of a potential sacking. Some fans even had to be restrained physically by security when they attempted to swarm the home dugout from the stands. The second half was hardly redeemable as the Black Cats played the first four minutes with only ten men as Sebastian Larsson emerged late from the dressing room for reasons unknown.
The atmosphere at the Stadium of Light on Saturday conjured up shades of Paulo Di Canio’s Sunderland tenure. For Poyet, that’s the one comparison you never wanted to make, as you’re meant to be the calculated man who was brought in to replace the madman in 2013. This is really bad for Poyet. In addition to some terrible performances, booing and cursing has now become the modus operandi of the Black Cat faithful. Once that happens, only a slew of well mannered victories will ease the tension of the homebase. Escaping relegation won’t do it. Attractive football amidst a loss won’t do it. Home draws won’t do it. Only wins will.
City Title Defense Dangling
Manchester City dropped three priceless points in the title race on Saturday by losing 0-1 to Burnley at Turf Moor. George Boyd scored the lone goal as the Clarets are now one point away from safety.
It must be said: Manchester City have been cruelly disappointing in 2015. Sure, they’re still Chelsea’s closest challengers in the title race, and they’ve miraculously managed to make it through to the Champions League knockout rounds. But shouldn’t we be far beyond these type of hollow plaudits with the Citizens by now? The club with more financial assets than all of their rivals need to be leaping their way to Everest rather than skipping, particularly when they’re five-plus years into a plan for world domination. As it turns out, City’s “defense” of their PL title isn’t proving to be much of a defense at all.
The dominance that should’ve been displayed by Manuel Pellegrini’s side seemed to only be intermittently available against Burnley. While City bettered the home team in possession and total shots, they only managed five shots-on-target to Burnley’s four. Every club is afforded a few bogey results throughout the season, sure, but this loss makes it only three wins in City’s last eleven matches.
The Sky Blues now travel to Barcelona for the second leg of their CL tie — where defeat at least “feels” imminent — and trail Chelsea, who have a game in-hand, by six points. And despite the Blues practically begging City to make a race of it, the inconsistency of Pellegrini’s men has been ripe. Of course, anything’s possible. But when tracking out a weekly Guide to Premier League Glory prior to the season, away to Burnley certainly wasn’t supposed to be highlighted in red.
Champions don’t blow matches like that. Frauds do.
I’m not sure if there’s anything to extrapolate from the fact that Manchester United saved their best performance of the season for the same day that a cellphone video of their captain being KO’d in his own living room (and by Phil Bardsley, no less) went viral. But I’m going to go with the flow and say they knew nothing about it.
As if head-knocks were as synonymous with Old Trafford these days as head-scratches, Louis van Gaal and Manchester United threw a counter hook on Sunday when they thoroughly dismantled Tottenham 3-0 at the Theatre of Dreams. Goals from Marouane Fellaini, Michael Carrick, and Wayne Rooney capped a stellar performance from the Red Devils, further cementing their current top four spot.
One of the purveying narratives surrounding Van Gaal’s United in recent months has been their affinity for longball tactics. The direct approach has been criticized for being fruitless, as well as inherently un-United. Against Spurs, the Dutchman displayed a more proactive, pass-friendly side by starting ball-players like Carrick and Juan Mata. Additionally, the shifting of Daley Blind to left-back — a position he flourished in at Ajax — also provided the perfect amount of solidity and width with which they butchered Tottenham’s right side of defense.
It was a master stroke by Van Gaal, but also one that begs additional questions. Why hasn’t he deployed similar tactics throughout the season? Why has he so often forsaken the club’s traditions for pragmatic, percentage football, especially when he has the personnel to do so? These are the questions whose answers will eventually either make or break United’s LVG Era. And as we’ve seen over the years with the Dutchman as various clubs, these answers aren’t always so digestible.